Whether it’s adapting to a rapidly changing performance landscape or overcoming the encryption that’s being built in to cars’ electronic brains, it’s tough to be a tuner these days. But you know what they say, “When it rains, it pours.” And, for aftermarket performance tuners, the hits just keep on coming.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Ask Brent Leivestad, the owner of a small Colorado speed shop called PFI Speed who just got hit with an $18,000 EPA fine – a fine that, if not paid within 30 days, could increase to $180,000.
“I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t even believe it,” Leivestad told Drag Illustrated in an interview published earlier this week. “I am a speed shop and sell race parts – I didn’t know that was wrong. I didn’t understand the basis of the EPA’s claim, I didn’t go in front of any trial or talk to anybody from the EPA, and the threat of ‘settle and pay within 30 days or else’ felt like a real shakedown intended to deny my rights.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, of course, but the overall trend that I want to draw attention to is one of enforcement. Environmental agencies at federal and state levels seem to have grown some teeth in recent months, and they’re not just going the speed shops – they’re going after their customers, too.
In California, CARB (the California Air Resource Board) and BAR (the Bureau of Automotive Repair) has already put measures in place to validate the sanctity of your car’s ECU. If your car’s ECU is found to be running unapproved software, that means no smog certificate for you.
The official guide to the ruling reads, “Beginning July 19, 2021, vehicles with software not provided by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or approved through a California Air Resources Board (CARB) Executive Order (EO) will fail Smog Check. Before your vehicle will pass a Smog Check, you must take your vehicle to a licensed repair facility to have the vehicle’s software restored to the OEM software version. Once the software is restored, have your vehicle reinspected by a licensed Smog Check station. Note that vehicles initially directed to a STAR or Referee station must return to that station type to complete the inspection process.”
This isn’t a new thing. In fact, there have been CARB rules on the books prohibiting non-CARB certified emissions-related components (ex.: ECU software, catalytic converters, mufflers, etc.) since at least 2009. The difference now is that these CARB and EPA rules are getting more firmly enforced, and not everyone is happy about how they’re being enforced.
PFI SPEED AND THE COMING FLOOD
To their credit, Performance Racing Industry (PRI) seems to have jumped to Leivestad’s defense, calling the EPA fine overreach in a statement, citing Leivestad’s claims that he complied fully with EPA inquiries and that there was no trial or hearing prior to his fine. To PRI, whose core membership is made up of hundreds of PFI Speeds, it’s a big issue.
“There are thousands of legitimate motorsports businesses that are at risk of EPA overreach,” said Dr. Jamie Meyer, PRI President, in a statement. “The EPA is putting these businesses – which are typically small, homegrown, less sophisticated shops – in situations where they have to take on the full might of the federal government. The EPA is doing nothing to validate its enforcement efforts, and these small businesses are left with little choice but to comply.”
What Meyer is alluding to here is absolutely true, despite the slippery slope fallacy. If PFI Speed is forced to pay its fines, others will be, too. That’s made doubly important because of one other fact in this case: PFI Speed didn’t manufacture the parts it’s being fined over.
You read that right. PFI Speed isn’t being fined because they knowingly removed a car’s emissions controls or represented a product as something “street legal” that wasn’t. According to them, they’re being fined for selling 37 Hondata S300 ECUs over a two-year span.
WHAT THIS IS REALLY ABOUT
It’s hard to understand why the EPA and PRI (and, coming soon, SEMA) have decided to square off over this particular shop in Colorado in any context other than it being a test case.
In that context, it makes sense for the EPA to go after a shop like PFI Speed, rather than Hondata. After all, the product page for the Hondata ECU in question reads, “Warning: Within the USA this product is legal only for racing vehicles which may never be used upon a public highway.”
That “racing vehicles” bit is the tricky part. That’s because, according to the EPA, street cars can’t be legally converted into race cars (an issue highlighted in this 2016 Congressional Hearing titled “Racing to Regulate: EPA’s Latest Overreach on Amateur Drivers” as presented by Representative Barry Loudermilk (R), Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives).
If there is a court case (and that seems likely), PRI and SEMA will be pushing back on that key point while lobbying on the behalf of what they’re calling The Recognizing the Protection of Motorsports (RPM) Act of 2021 (H.R. 3281), which SEMA calls “common-sense, bi-partisan legislation to protect Americans’ right to convert street vehicles into dedicated racecars and the motorsports-parts industry’s ability to sell products that enable racers to compete. The bill clarifies that it is legal to make emissions-related changes to a street vehicle for the purpose of converting it into a racecar used exclusively in competition. It also confirms that it is legal to produce, market and install racing equipment.”
If PFI Speed’s fine holds up, that’ll be game over for a lot of speed shops and amateur drag racers who, you know, do that sort of thing. And, as much fun as it might be to ramble off about “When does a streetcar become a race car?” these are people’s jobs we’re talking about, which is a heavy thing.
That said, it’s also people’s clean air we’re talking about, so it’s hard to find an obvious bad guy in all this – especially as someone who loves tuning and racing, but has also been known to hug a tree now and again. But that’s me. You, however, are the Best and Brightest, and I want to know whether you’re cheering for the EPA or PFI Speed this time around.
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